Singer songwriter Justin Townes Earle would never admit it, but he has a lot to live up to -- not least of which is his name.
His father is legendary country-rock singer/songwriter Steve Earle, a Virginia native known for his political activism who's been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. If that weren't enough, pops named him after an even more revered singer-songwriter from the South, the all-time-great Townes Van Zandt.
"Anybody who tries to live up to Van Zandt is a fool," the 25-year-old Earle says via phone from Nashville, where he's preparing to record his first full-length album for Bloodshot Records. "I'm honored to carry the name, but if I spent my life trying to live up to it, I'd have a pretty miserable life. Nobody can write songs like that, or live as long as he did the way he lived." (Van Zandt was a notorious drinker and drug addict who died in 1997 from a blood clot in his lungs following hip surgery, prompting his little daughter to proclaim, "Daddy had a fight with his heart.")
Of course, there are pros and cons to being the son of a famous musician.
"The good part is people are automatically going to pay attention to you, but the problem is they're automatically going to pay attention to you you're under much more of a microscope," Earle says. "You just gotta get out there and do what you do. I don't read reviews or interviews. That's none of my business what people think. I'm a hot-headed Southerner, so that's the last thing I need."
Yet how does one rebel from a notoriously rebellious father? Earle admits he's no angel himself. He's done some hard partying causing him to blow one record and publishing deal and is now a recovering heroin addict. He says he's been completely sober for three and a half years.
"All my heroes, from my dad [a former heroin addict who went to prison in the '90s on drug and firearms charges] to Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Reed, Shane MacGowan I thought you had to be this certain way. I was chasing this image damn near into the grave," he says. "But you don't have to be fucked up to write a good song."
Listening to his EP, "Yuma," you can hear that the sober Earle has plenty of talent to offer. It's a mostly traditional approach to acoustic music, with several of the songs (including "Ghosts of Virginia," which mentions Richmond many times) having the lengthy, storytelling approach employed by his father and Van Zandt. The self-taught Earle has a keen sense of narrative and even sounds a little like his dad, which may be unavoidable. "I don't like labels," he says, "but if I had to, I would label myself hillbilly music."
Earle says he's a big Civil War fan (he's read the 3,000-page Shelby Foote collection twice) and says there will be more songs about it on his new album, which will likely have a Ray Price, Buck Owens type of feel. But he's been to Richmond only once, when he opened for Jason Isbell (of the Drive-By Truckers) several months ago, and he has yet to see any of the city's historical landmarks. When he plays his Richmond gig at the Barksdale Theatre's Stretchin' series, he will be accompanied by Corey Yount on banjo, mandolin and harmonica.
Although he never spent much time around his father, who married five times and was usually away touring, the elder Earle did give him some advice:
"He said, 'Only write about what you know and read as much as you can, because if you don't put anything in, nothing comes out.'" S
Justin Townes Earle performs at the Stretchin' series at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn Sunday, Dec. 9, at 6 p.m. with openers Susan Greenbaum and Chris Parker. Tickets are $12. 358-1990.